It is make or break for Northampton Saints where their Gallagher Premiership semi-final hopes are concerned, and captain Lewis Ludlam believes that scenario can bring out the best in them.
Saints have had to wait three weeks for a chance to put behind them their disappointing loss at fellow play-off chasers London Irish, a result Ludlam admits was difficult to get over.
It was a defeat that meant, with just two games of the regular season left, their fate is no longer in their hands and they will need to win both and hope one or two other results go their way.
Ludlam, however, draws inspiration from the fact that the men in Black, Green & Gold found themselves in a similar position 12 months ago, yet thrived in such a situation rather than be cowed by it.
Saturday’s match against league leaders Saracens starts what is effectively two weeks of ‘knock-out rugby,’ with Saints well aware they can no longer afford any more slip-ups if they are to finish in the top four for a second season running.
Ludlam said: “For us, up until the London Irish game, it was in our hands and that was a really nice position to be in. It hurts in that you never want to be relying on other people’s results.
“However, where I think this team has done well over the last few years is when the pressure has really been on.
“You saw it at the end of last season when we went on that unbeaten run and got ourselves in a position to qualify for the play-offs.”Lewis Ludlam
“Now we find ourselves back in a position where results are probably a little bit out of our hands and the pressure is on us to perform and get wins now.
“I think it’s a position this squad enjoys being in and enjoys thriving in as well.”
What also gives Ludlam and his team-mates confidence is their record at cinch Stadium at Franklin’s Gardens this season.
While results on the road have been frustratingly hard to come by, Saints have been more reliable on their own patch, with only one home loss on their record in the Premiership.
Ludlam appreciates the role the supporters can play on such a crucial day as this one, and believes the customary backing they receive from the Gardens faithful can push them on against formidable opponent in Saracens.
He said: “Our fans, through difficult times for rugby this season when there’s been a lot going on, have been fantastic for us.
“There’s always an extra want and desire to perform for our fans at home and I think when things have gone wrong in games, we get a massive amount of energy from the crowd.
“The Gardens is usually roaring and they’ve been a massive boost for us.
“When you’re away from home, that isn’t necessarily there and when things have gone wrong I think we’ve struggled to find our way back in games, so being at home has been a massive boost for us this season.
“It’s something that the boys have loved doing and I think we’re blessed with the best fans in the Premiership, so it’s always easier when we are playing at home.”Lewis Ludlam
Saints should go into the game, against visitors who have already secured a top-two finish, feeling refreshed after having an unusually long break at what is the business end of the season.
In contrast, Saracens have had battles against Ospreys and Stade Rochelais in the Heineken Champions Cup in the past two weeks, at a time where Saints’ players were able to clear their heads and refocus.
“It’s hard to grasp whether it was a good time for us to have a break off the back of the London Irish game,” Ludlam said.
“However, the way the boys came in after a week away, and the way they applied themselves – I went away to Dubai and a few of the other lads went on holiday – everyone has come back with a fresh energy, ready to take on what is a really important part of the season for us.
“It probably in hindsight was the right time [for a break], but now we’re all champing at the bit to get back out there again.”Lewis Ludlam
Ludlam would be justified for thinking the break came at a good time for him personally, after the 27-year-old started all five of England’s matches during this year’s Six Nations.
It represented his longest spell in his country’s line-up so far and although results were mixed for Steve Borthwick’s side, he was one player who certainly emerged with his reputation enhanced.
When asked how he found the experience, Ludlam said: “I loved it. It’s the most I’ve been involved in a campaign for England.
“I can only thank Steve and Kev [Sinfield] for the opportunity to do that, and Phil Dowson for what he’s done at the Club as well. He’s allowed me to perform for my Club and that’s given me the opportunity to play for my country.
“I’ve loved the last two months and the focus for me now is to really kick on from there and take in what I’ve learnt from camp, take it back to Northampton and put it on in a Saints shirt.”